If you still think olive oil and canola oil are the only healthy oils that can help you manage your cholesterol, here’s some heart-smart advice.
If you are watching your cholesterol levels and concerned about your heart health, chances are that you are trying to avoid foods loaded with animal (saturated) fats and trans-fats. But experts say that what you don’t know about the basic nature of fats could be undermining your efforts. Even many dietitians are not fully aware of how certain types of dietary fats can actually help your body to naturally correct and maintain its blood cholesterol balance.
Surprising Fact #1: All fats are composed of molecules that are a combination of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids (three fatty acids in each molecule)
Think of a fat molecule like a half a six-pack of cola, with three cans of cola hanging from the plastic rings. Theoretically, you could replace one of the rings with a lemon-lime soda and it would still be 2/3 cola. Animal fat molecules contain mostly saturated fatty acids among the three fatty acid units, but inserting one polyunsaturated fatty acid among them now and then makes a big difference how the body processes the fat. This is what makes Malaysian palm fruit oil somewhat unique because it contains the highest number of polyunsaturated fatty acids of all the saturated fats, e.g. about five times more than coconut oil or butter fat.
Surprising Fact #2: Saturated fats are not necessarily bad for you.
After spending his entire career studying the effects of dietary fats on cholesterol levels, I have determined that the body does best with the right balance of all three types of fatty acids. Saturated fats have a bad reputation not because they contain saturated fatty acids but because they lack sufficient polyunsaturated fatty acids among those three-ring clusters. With the right balance, saturated fatty acids maintain your HDL (good cholesterol) while polyunsaturated fatty acids decrease your LDL (bad cholesterol). Monounsaturated fatty acids have a neutral effect on cholesterol levels.
If you have a high blood cholesterol, then you need more polyunsaturates and fewer saturates, but much fewer polys are needed if your cholesterol is low. So your consumption of saturated fat is not an issue per se, as long as you have an adequate intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids simultaneously to balance the need at that moment.
Surprising Fact #3: If you have elevated blood cholesterol levels, olive oil is not the answer.
Soybean and canola oils are 40-50 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids and the rest are monounsaturated, with a low level of saturated fatty acids. Olive oil is mostly monounsaturated fatty acids. And since monounsaturated fatty acids are neutral, they won’t cause trouble with your cholesterol but they also can’t get you out of trouble if your body is desperately needing more polyunsaturated fatty acids.
If your cholesterol is in the healthy range, consuming olive oil is fine. But if it’s elevated, you’ll want to choose an oil rich in polyunsaturates, or even one of the more liquid fractions of palm fruit oil (i.e. such as pressed red palm fruit oil) which contains a healthy balance of polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids as well as antioxidant-rich carotenoids an vitamin E.
Surprising Fact #4: Not all tropical oils are the same.
They aren’t all created equal! Most people don’t know that Malaysian palm fruit oil comes from the flesh of the palm oil fruit, much like olive oil comes from the flesh of the olive. Not only is Malaysian palm fruit oil a cholesterol-free vegetable oil, but it contains more polyunsaturated fatty acids than coconut oil, for example, and thus it is better at lowering your LDL cholesterol. By contrast, palm kernel oil (like coconut oil) comes from the fruit’s seeds and contains 85 percent saturated fatty acids and only two percent polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Surprising Fact #5 Polyunsaturated oils are not healthy when they are fully hydrogenated.
Food producers, especially those who market baked goods such as pre-packaged cookies and cakes, need an oil that does not break down at high temperatures, and that is shelf stable for long periods of time. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are unstable in that regard, so liquid oils do not work well.
For years, trans-fats were used for this purpose until the public became aware of their health hazards. Many food producers have now switched to soybean oil that has been loaded with hydrogen (a process called hydrogenation to make them ‘fully saturated’ with hydrogen) to stabilize the molecules. Fully hydrogenated soybean oil has the consistency of candle wax – which is not handled normally by the body, even if stable on the shelf. It is legally fat but it is not natural or normal.
The more health-conscious food producers are using palm fruit oil, which is naturally relatively solid at room temperature, yet contains sufficient polyunsaturates and monounsaturates to melt naturally into a liquid form when consumed. It simply doesn’t need to be hydrogenated to work well in most processed food applications. Palm fruit oil performs typically much better at high heat than other vegetable oils, and is also great in prepared foods, or when used as its liquid fraction at lower temperatures, such as in salad dressings.
Palm fruit oil and its fractions present a spectrum of natural oils that can be applied to a wide variety of applications. It has been widely accepted in Europe for many years. My hope is that Americans will learn more about the importance of various fats, including the type of fatty acids they are consuming, in order to be smarter and more aware of the fats they ingest daily.
Dr. K.C. Hayes is a professor of biology (nutrition) and director of Foster Biomedical Research Laboratory and Animal Resources at Brandeis University, positions he has held for more than 17 years. Dr. Hayes is the author or co-author of more than 160 reports, 23 chapters and 175 abstracts on various topics related to nutrition.